Saturday, October 13, 2012

First world problems

I got to thinking today about the online scuffle, just a couple of weeks ago, about Lady Gaga and her bulemia. In case you didn't hear about it, she released pictures of her almost-naked self in an effort to show what she really looks like. Partly this was to counteract accusations that she'd gained 50 pounds (rather than 20) and the accompanying photoshopped pictures. At least, that's my understanding of it. I only heard about it at all because I was perusing Jezebel and I wondered, as a feminist, what was going to be said about it. What was disturbing to me wasn't really the article itself, which mostly took the stance of, "Well, if she's really trying to help then I guess good for her...I guess." What disturbed me were the comments. Over half of the people complained that she's still really thin. It was all put forth with a whiny undertone of, what does she have to complain about? I don't perceive it as a problem so therefore it's not a real problem. She should shut up.
I don't really care about this for Lady Gaga's sake--if nothing else, she seems like she can weather a storm of whiny online bitching--but I was wondering what message comments like those send to other young women who aren't as secure and confident. Body dysmorphia is a serious problem with life-threatening (and life-ending) consequences at its most extreme. And it is pretty much the embodiment of a first world problem. After all, people in countries where the majority of people struggle to find enough food generally do not suffer from thinking that they're too fat. So we can agree that it's just a first world problem, right? But I don't see how that makes it any less of a problem. We do still have girls starving themselves to death because of body dysmorphia. We have ever increasing rates of young women and even young men doing severe harm to themselves because of this, and the message that they're getting from others is, "Stop crying and get some real problems."
I don't like this trend of brushing off other people's problems as if they're not "real". You have enough to eat, why are you complaining about that bitchy coworker who was being a douche today? It's as if you don't have a right to say, "I'm not perfectly happy," if you're privileged. I'm all for keeping things in perspective. In the grand scheme of things, that bitchy coworker really doesn't matter so have your little moment of frustration and then get over it. (I would say look for a new job, but you'd probably just encounter another bitchy coworker at the new job.) But having others act as if your problems don't matter is the most unhelpful thing ever. And it doesn't bring any happiness to the world.
I'm not religious (a while ago someone described me as "a person of faith" and I like that much better) and I'm not a philosopher. I don't really know what the purpose or meaning of life is, except that I think it would be better if we all tried to make the world a happier, better place. Wouldn't that be lovely, if everyone actually worked toward making the world better? Instead of whining because someone else's problems aren't "real" enough, what if we actually tried to help them be happier? And if what we really want to do is increase the world's happiness, then we each need to figure out what will make us happy. I don't think it's that hard, really. The things most of us are quite simple. Food, shelter, warmth, love, a purpose in life, things like that. And just enough of each. You don't want enough food that it makes you unhealthy, nor does more than enough shelter for your needs make you any happier. (Think of the upkeep!) Love that smothers is a bit too much. So I'm not advocating "be selfish, take everything you want", since that's not actually a recipe for long-term happiness. No, what I'm talking about is delving deep inside ourselves to figure out what will make us truly happy. It might not take as much as you think.
You need to stop, take a few minutes, and think about those things which will make you content and happy. I think for most of us, what will make us happy aren't the things we're actually pursuing: Money and Stuff. And for some people, Fame. If those things would make everyone happy, then our country--the richest in the whole history of the world, filled with more consumer goods than we know what to do with, and lots of celebrities--would actually be happy. Instead, we consistently rank very poorly on every measure of happiness. A huge number of people are on antidepressants, and the number grows every year. People are unhealthy, and that never leads to happiness. So if we all just figured out what would make us happy and worked toward it, I think the world would be a much better place.
What does this have to do with third world problems, though? What does making myself happy have to do with people whose lives are actually miserable? Well for one thing, people who are happy tend to be the ones who look for ways to improve the lives of those around them. Being unhappy tends to lead to a lot of selfishness. "I can't give that away, I need that. I can't give away my money, I need it." When you know what you need to be happy, when you are happy, you want to know what you can do to help others so that they can be just as happy. If nothing else, happy people tend to spread smiles and joy just by their presence. I have a friend like that. She's so happy that just to be around her makes other people a bit happier. It's like her superpower. Don't you wish you could be like that?
On a grander scale, wars are not fought because countries are happy. ("Dear other country, we love you so we're invading you.") Crime doesn't happen because the people committing the crimes are incurably happy. ("It's such a lovely day and my life is so good, I think I'll go rob a bank.") Greed doesn't manifest because a person is content with themselves and what they have. ("Man, I have so many good things in my life. You know what I need? More. I need everything, even that other person's stuff.") These tend to be problems of discontent and unhappiness.
Happy people have goals, yes, but they know how to work toward those goals and accomplish them. And you know what else? Happy people are content with what they have. Happy people don't take minor problems and make them seem like the end of the world, nor do they focus solely on themselves since a bit of perspective can really make you rethink what's a problem in your life and what isn't. As an example, the other day I was walking home and saw one of the shuttle buses. I thought to myself, "I have working arms and legs. Why would I ever take the shuttle when I actually have the ability to use my own legs instead? Not everyone is as lucky as I am. I'm not Usain Bolt, but damn my legs are fantastic."
The next time I see someone whining about another person's problem and how it's so much better than their own problems, or it doesn't matter, or it's not a "real" problem, I'm going to remind myself that the person doing the complaining probably isn't very happy. After all, happy people don't complain that they have it so much worse than others because they know exactly how good their life is.
What will make you happy?

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